The future of politics in a data-driven democracy
By Zoë Leigh
Until recently, data privacy has never much concerned me. I could think of worse things than being persuaded to buy a pair of shoes based on my online activity, and to some extent I believed that I was immune to such manipulation. It wasn’t until I learned about a new political marketing tactic called behavioural micro-targeting that I realised exactly how such data could be used. Contrary to my uninformed beliefs, it goes beyond shoe brand choice, instead raising important questions about the future of modern democracy.
One of the key components of behavioural micro-targeting is Big Data, which are extremely large data sets extracted from a wide range of sources from social media activity to credit card transaction history. This information can be used to create extremely in-depth profiles of individual voters. Michal Kosinski, the psychologist credited with inadvertently paving the way for behavioural micro-targeting, demonstrated in one of his earlier studies that Facebook likes alone can predict a large number of personal attributes automatically and accurately without the user’s informed consent. These attributes include basic demographics such as gender and ethnicity, but also political preferences and personality traits. The collected information form intricate voter profiles, which are subsequently used by companies such as Cambridge Analytica — who were involved in the Trump campaign and have even been accused of involvement in Vote Leave’s campaign — to influence election results.
This data informs political campaigns about who to target and with what type of message. It can identify individual voters’ concerns so that social media adverts can be tailored to these issues. For example, if a Facebook user’s online activity suggests that they’re angry about immigration, they can be targeted with ads that emphasise this exact issue. Although in principle it may seem good that political campaigns respond to the voters’ needs, this approach to political marketing raises some concerns. It means that politicians are directly responding to the grievances of their target audience, which becomes a problem if these grievances are ill-founded. If immigration is being blamed for problems it hasn’t caused, micro-targeting may lead to politicians exploiting these feelings to gain support by targeting voters with posts that justify such sentiments. Consequently, the public isn’t being challenged to think critically about their views; instead, their views are being confirmed by what is shown in their newsfeed. Not only does this reduce the exposure of voters to opposing views, but politicians are motivated to respond to issues in superficial ways, rather than tackling the underlying problems, to appear as if they’re addressing their target audience’s concerns directly.
Perhaps even more worrying is that this data isn’t just used to target potential voters to gain their support, but also to attempt to keep the opponent’s potential supporters from the voting booths. This is done through so-called ‘dark posts’; posts that are only visible to users with particular profiles. Cambridge Analytica used this method in the Trump campaign with the aim of dissuading groups of the electorate identified as likely to support Clinton from voting. Namely, news about the Clinton Foundation’s failure to effectively provide aid after the earthquake in Haiti was shown specifically to individuals living in Little Haiti; a neighbourhood of Miami where many Haitian immigrants reside. If we assume that one of the cornerstones of democracy is the freedom to vote how one chooses, then surely a political marketing tactic that manipulates individuals’ voting behaviour in such a covert way directly undermines one of the foundations of modern democracy.
Given how micro-targeting allows political campaigns to target voters with incredible precision in order to effectively influence their voting behaviour, it’s likely that these tactics will become increasingly prevalent throughout Western liberal democracies. Therefore, it’s important for us to be mindful of the ways in which our data is used, and to be critical of the information included or excluded from our social media feeds.
Image courtesy of The Spectator